Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Plato Had No "Doctrine" About "Ideas"

Eva Brann makes the point I have been trying to about "Plato's philosophy":
My subject, as proposed, is “Plato’s Theory of Ideas.” Whether that subject actually interests you, or you think that it ought to interest you, you will, I imagine, regard it as a respectable topic. And yet I have to tell you that every term in the project is wrong-headed. Let me therefore begin by explaining why that is.

First, Plato’s Theory of Ideas is not a subject at all. I mean that it is not a compact mental material to be presented on an intellectual platter. Plato himself refrained from making it the direct theme of any of the twenty-five or more dialogues which he wrote. Instead, the ideas appear in the context of conversation, incidentally, and in scattered places. He gives the reason directly in a letter:

"There is no treatise of mine about these things, nor ever will be. For it cannot be talked about like other subjects of learning, but out-of much communion about this matter, and from living together, suddenly, like a light kindled from a leaping fire, it gets into the soul, and from there on nourishes itself." [Seventh Letter 341 c]
It is the experience "like a light kindled from a leaping fire" that "gets into the soul" that is important, not some "doctrine."

But that can't be put on a syllabus nor a multiple choice exam, so what we get in today's universities is generally more like an autopsy on the corpse of Plato's thought.


  1. Gene, from my own experience currently in academia - working on a graduate writing sample and finishing up my undergraduate in philosophy and mathematics - I feel, more and more, that our current way of doing philosophy is deeply flawed. As you have said before, contemporary philosophy (at least in the analytical West) is takes the rubric of 'who has the best arguments' as being the 'best' or 'most likely right' philosopher.

    On the other hand, there is a tension between completely rejecting argumentation (which is silly, too) to trying to rely on just argumentation (or, rather, to become someone who just loves doxa).

    Do we find this 'middle ground' via a 'right ordering of the soul', as Plato would put it - aligning ourselves with the Divine - or do we get it through experience and practice?

    1. Well, you align yourself with the Divine through experience and practice!

    2. Okay; sure, thanks. This seems to be a theme running through Plato and Voegelin - I just wanted to make sure that I understood correctly.


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